“Hoity-toity” means haughty or snobbish, pretentiously self-important, or pompous. As with many reduplicated phrases, one word carries an existing meaning and the other is present for emphasis.

Originally, the word meant “frolicsome, romping, giddy, flighty,” but that meaning has now almost completely died out. The frivolousness/riotousness meaning was first recorded in Sir Roger L’Estrange’s 1668 translation of The visions of Don Francisco de Quevedo Villegas.

These days, hoity-toity is defined by the “looking down the nose” manner adopted by characters like Lady Bracknell, in the stage and film versions of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Or Hyacinth Bucket, in Keeping Up Appearances.

The later meaning isn’t seen until around mid to late 1700s and is recorded in O’Keefe’s Fontainebleau in 1784: “My mother … was a fine lady, all upon the hoity-toities, and so, good for nothing.”

The earlier meaning of the term came from the word hoit. This verb (now dead and gone) meant to indulge in riotous, noisy mirth. That in turn was formed from hoyden — a boorish clown or rude boisterous girl. Hoyden may have come from the Middle Dutch heiden, a heath, therefore a yokel. If that is true, hoyden is a close relative of heathen.

The change from one meaning to the other may be due to the pronunciation of hoity as heighty and the subsequent allusion to highness or haughtiness. The word highty-tighty, was in use between the1600s and 1800s. The first part may have evoked the idea of height and so led to assumptions of superiority, although no such link ever actually existed.

Two dictionaries published in the 1700s give intermediate forms:

—B.E’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew: “Hightetity, a Ramp or Rude Girl.”

—Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785 “Heighty toity, a hoydon, or romping girl.”  

Today, we might say that the young lady was coltish or a tomboy.

Being hoity-toity is not a good idea. If your nose is held too high, you can’t see where you’re going, and might trip over something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: